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In CD, The Race--And The Market--Is To The Swift.

The race, as the saying goes, is to the swift. CD-ROM drives routinely attain 24X and 32X read-speeds nowadays; but margins are shrinking drastically. The action on the field is in making recorders faster than ever. And I say "almost" because there are some intriguing counter-revolutionary products too.

Speed Demons

Plextor was first out of the gate, this year, with an IDE drive specified to record write-once (CD-R) media at 12X and to record on rewritable (CD-RW) disks at a whopping 10X. Its read-speed is 32X, and the whole specification is echoed in the model's designation as PlexWriter 12/10/32A. (Indeed, all drive makers now standardize on spec'ing "writeonce/rewrite/read" in that order.) The drive has an MSRP of only $329, which is below the MSRP Plextor set when it introduced its previous--slower--drives.

Forward-pricing like that isn't typical of big Japanese manufacturers; but Plextor's parent company, Shinano Kenshi Corp., reports that a full 60% of its half-a-billion-dollar revenues last year came from products in the CD form factor. So I guess they're willing to take a chance on holding the entry price low to stimulate more unit sales.

Not to be outdone, Ricoh, Teac, and TDK have now matched Plextor's performance specs and pricing.

Ricoh is bringing out an ATAPI version for laptop and portable computer connections. Model MP7120A is specified to achieve 12X/10X/32X performance too, but Ricoh is also forward-pricing its drive, at a very attractive MSRP of $299.

Teac's model CD-W512E is a 12X/10X/32X IDE drive. But Teac is also offering that level of performance in a SCSI version (CD-W512S), which neither Ricoh nor Plextor has yet. And Teac is active in the USB area too, with its model CD-WE54E--a 4X/4X/32X external drive retailing for $249.

TDK's new 12X/10X/32X drive, called VeloCD, is an internal ATAPI model with an MSRP of $349. It shares with Plextor's new drive the so-called BURN-Proof technology that's licensed from Sanyo which essentially eliminates buffer underrun errors that can ruin disks during recording.

And Yamaha is releasing a drive with a top write speed of 16X, although that's specified only for the disk's outer edges and only in CAV recording mode (i.e., when emulating a floppy disk). Conventionally stated, its speed ratings are 12X/10X/40X. The internal ATAPI model CRW2100E was announced in September--without pricing--and was scheduled to ship in October. Internal Ultra SCSI (CRW2100S), external Ultra SCSI (CRW2100SX), and IEEE 1394 "FireWire" (CRW2100IX) versions were slated for release by year's end.


Faster recorders need faster media, and users are probably well advised to buy media that's specified to respond to faster recording speeds than their drives can actually deliver. That is, a disk that's rated at 12X is probably going to respond better and more reliably to an 8X writer than will a disk with a "top" speed of 8X. The faster disk is almost certainly more sensitive to the write-laser, and is generally manufactured to higher tolerances all around, so it's worth the extra money.

Higher speed ratings generally appear first in write-once media. Taiyo Yuden, the first commercial CD-R manufacturer, is starting to produce write-once disks with a 16X recording spec. This, even though no 16X writers are available yet--at least not in the U.S.

But rewrite speeds are getting faster too. Verbatim and TDK are announcing the availability of 10X CD-RW disks.

Many media-makers are offering disks in shrink-wrapped 50- and 100-unit package without individual boxes, and are selling them through office-supply and big-box category-killer retailers such as Costco. For people whose disks need the protection or separate wrappers, though, Imation is shipping 12X-rated media in very thin plastic containers: they open the same way as--but are only about half the thickness of--conventional "jewel boxes."

Mitsui, which is under-appreciated as a player in the CD media business, was a pioneer (with Kodak) in offering a "gold" phthalocyanine dye recording layer that--independent tests generally confirm--enable a longer archival life than the earlier "green" cyanine dye layers do. In day-to-day CD-burning, the difference is not significant; but "gold" disks evidently have a correspondingly longer shelf-life too, and hence may represent a better choice for integrators when they need to bundle media with drives.

Budget Drives

Drives that have been offered for a while with slower (but still more-than-merely-acceptable) performance specs are now widely available at attractively lower prices. Yamaha's model CDW8824EZ, for example, which is rated at 8X/8X/24X, retails for $195 in its IDE version and $235 for SCSI. Ricoh is shipping what it calls a "value-price" CD-RW drive: model MP7083A with the 8X/8X/32X specs is retail-priced at $179.

And at the truly low-priced end of the CD-recordable market, Taiwan-based Acer is evidently challenging its competitors to undercut if they dare. Acer offers a 50X(!) IDE CD-ROM reader that's now in retail stores and mail-order catalogs for just $38.95, and a DVD-ROM drive that also reads CDs at 16X, for $115.95. But its CD-RW drive (model CRW1O32A) is the bargain of the year. It's specified to burn CD-Rs at a healthy clip of 10X, to more modestly write CD-RW disks at 4X, and to read disks at the current, de facto standard of 32X--all for just $159.95.

I hope no one will be surprised when the price of a drive like that falls to $99 by next Spring. And at that point, even if CD-ROM drives are available for $25 or even less, who in their right mind would eschew recordability just to save a few bucks?

Combo Drives

Toshiba and Ricoh are taking a different approach in the quest for market share: one in which capability--not speed--is the key.

Toshiba's new model SDR1002 reads CDs at only 24X and records both write-once and rewritable media at what is nowadays a rather pokey 4X speed. But the $289 (MSRP) half-height ATAPI drive also reads DVD-ROMs.

This is a somewhat risky move for Toshiba, since the drive does not read DVD-video disks (i.e.. it doesn't play movies), which represent the largest market segment of prerecorded DVD media to date. Nor does it read recordable DVD-RAM disks, even though Toshiba is a full partner with Hitachi and Panasonic in DVD-RAM development. And Toshiba isn't releasing its first branded DVD-RAM drive until Comdex. (I'll have more details on that next month, in a report on DVD-recordables.)

Ricoh's version is higher-priced, at $349, but also much faster. The ADAPI drive, model MP9120A, is rated for CDs at 12X/10X/32X. As a CD recorder, it also includes what Ricoh calls "JustLink," which its spec sheets describe as "an error prevention technology, that... automatically prevents buffer under-run errors by predicting them before they occur. This intelligent technology suspends writing when an error detection is predicted and automatically resumes when enough data has accumulated to prevent an underrun." I would say that, like Plextor, Ricoh has licensed Sanyo's BURN-Proof technology.

There are plenty of DVD-ROMs being manufactured nowadays and DVD-ROM drives also read all CD media: -Audio, -ROM, -R and -RW. So several PC makers have started to supply DVD-ROM drives as standard equipment in some turnkey systems and to price them attractively in their build-to-order systems. A combo drive makes sense.

In fact, Toshiba has inked a big deal to supply computer components, including storage devices, to the industry leader: Dell. For the record, the companies call it a "strategic alliance and master purchase agreement" that they project could be worth $5 billion to Toshiba over the next three years. Toshiba and Dell apparently believe that users want to move away from read-only drives altogether. After all, for barely $100 (retail) more, users can add recordability and the 650MB capacity of CD media is attractively large enough for many backup and file-sharing applications.

So, in this new combo-drive category, the Toshiba SD-R1002 provides acceptable (if obsolete) recording speeds at an attractively modest price, while the Ricoh MP9120A ups the ante in both performance and cost. Until some other vendor does significantly better in either direction--or both--these drives will be the de facto standards.

To conclude with a quick look ahead ... CD capacities, which have stayed at 650MB since their inception more than ten years ago, may change next year. Only a few drives and disks have ever been rated at higher capacities of 700 or 740MB--those "74-minute" audio disks, for example (stereo audio files require 10MB/minute). But as data disks, such media aren't necessarily readable on all other drives. Now Sony and Philips are floating a proposal to the industry for a "double-density" drive spec that would put 1.3GB on specially-formulated write-once CDs. The drives use Cirrus Logic chipsets that would add about $8 (OEM) to the manufacturing cost. The disks would be rated for 16X writing and 48X reading speeds, and would definitely not be readable in today's installed base of drives. So it's still a long-shot, but 1.3GB CDs could well appear before the end of 2001.
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Title Annotation:Product Information; Ricoh MP7120A, Plextor PlexWriter 12/10/32A CD-recordable drives
Author:Glatzer, Hal
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Previous Article:Challenges Of CD-RW/DVD Combo Drive Design.
Next Article:Small Is Beautiful.

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